After Messi withdrawal, Atlanta fans, team try to make the best of a nasty surprise

Atlanta United gamers have fun after a objective as Inter Miami’s Sergio Busquets reacts in the course of the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 16, 2023 in Atlanta. (Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Pictures)

ATLANTA — The town of Atlanta has suffered greater than its share of bitter sports activities disappointments, however at the least most of these occurred in the course of the recreation. One of the vital anticipated regular-season occasions within the metropolis’s historical past — a Saturday night go to from Lionel Messi and Inter Miami — misplaced just about all its celeb juice 18 hours earlier than kickoff. Messi opted to relaxation and stay in Miami, irritating a sellout crowd full of Messi jerseys and newly minted Inter Miami followers.

“I’m extremely upset, given the extent of anticipation and elevated seating capability that was made out there, which I assumed was based totally on Messi’s MLS involvement and attendance,” stated Frank Chavez, a fan expressing the ideas — and expenditures — of many in attendance. Chavez flew in from Texas along with his son and purchased tickets on the secondary marketplace for $300 apiece.

“The desire would have been to have him right here, clearly,” Atlanta United proprietor Arthur Clean stated previous to the sport in response to a query from Yahoo Sports activities. “It’s the character of sports activities. Accidents happen. If he can’t be right here, he can’t be right here.”

The need-he-won’t-he started even earlier than Messi formally signed with Miami. At the same time as speculators snatched up tickets for future Inter Miami dates in August, September and October, longtime Messi observers warned in ominous tones that he wouldn’t play on synthetic turf. When that principle proved groundless, consideration turned to Argentina’s World Cup qualifying matches held final week. When Messi sat out Argentina’s Tuesday match towards Bolivia, hopes in Atlanta soared … solely to crash late Friday night time when phrase trickled out that Messi did not journey with the crew to Atlanta and wouldn’t be taking part in in spite of everything.

“It is a choice that the crew made as a result of Messi has performed in additional video games than anyone ever anticipated,” MLS commissioner Don Garber stated shortly earlier than the match started. “He got here in shortly, he performed within the U.S. Open Cup, the Leagues Cup, he performed for his nation. That’s a whole lot of video games for a man that’s delivered in so some ways, on and off the sector.”

Nonetheless, for Atlanta followers hoping to see Messi, it will need to have felt like attempting to defend the GOAT himself: a little bit hope, a little bit prayer, a little bit religion … and the information that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what, Messi was all the time going to do no matter he wished.

“We have been mentally ready for the worst to occur, and it looks as if it has,” stated Kael Rewers, who paid $150 a ticket and traveled from Illinois for the match. “The profit is that Messi received us into the Atlanta United [when they played earlier this season], so we’re going to make one of the best of it.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 16: A fan holds a sign prior to a match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

A fan holds an indication previous to Saturday’s match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photograph by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Pictures)

Atlanta has a well-earned rep as a front-running city, its followers displaying out in massive numbers when their crew is successful however all the time discovering one thing else to do when the Braves, Hawks or Falcons battle.

That dynamic doesn’t fairly apply to United, nevertheless. The crew averages 46,504 followers per recreation, most in MLS, per Soccer Stadium Digest. Eight of the highest 10 most attended MLS matches have taken place in Mercedes-Benz Stadium; solely LAFC’s Rose Bowl match on July 4 and Charlotte FC’s debut in March 2022 have eclipsed the Atlanta United.

Even with secondary ticket costs nicely into the triple digits, Saturday’s match virtually certainly would have ranked among the many best-attended in MLS historical past. As an alternative, ticket costs cratered, falling from a get-in value of greater than $200 earlier within the week to as little as $40 within the hours earlier than the sport.

For Saturday night time’s match, the crew opened up extra seating used for Tremendous Bowls and school soccer nationwide championships, and bought out the home. Regardless of Messi’s absence and the sky-is-falling ticket selloff, the overwhelming majority of followers ended up coming to the match anyway.

Liz Goncher and Ian Helfrich, two native college students, purchased their tickets just a few days in the past for $300 apiece. “We received to see him just a few years in the past in Barcelona,” Goncher stated. “So at the least we’ve seen him as soon as.”

If there was any doubt why most of the followers have been on the match, only some of the hundreds within the crowd sporting pink Messi jerseys cheered when Miami’s Leo Campana scored the sport’s first objective within the match’s twenty fifth minute — and a complete lot extra stood and celebrated when Atlanta’s Tristan Muyumba drilled an equalizer about 10 minutes later.

The absence of Messi-cheering casuals left the stadium’s environment within the arms of the Atlanta United hardcores — the 17s, they name them right here, after the yr during which United started operation. With raucous chants, huge swaying flags, fist-pumping Infinity Gauntlets and whirling giveaway towels, the 17s stored up a gentle celebration that exploded into euphoria as United scored three straight to take a halftime lead of 3-1. United went on to attain twice within the second half and Miami as soon as for a closing rating of 5-2. It was Miami’s first loss since Messi arrived.

That, ultimately, is one of the best consequence that Atlanta United may have hoped for, each on and off the sector. Different golf equipment throughout MLS the place Messi really took the sector — Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Dallas, amongst others — have reported that new followers who confirmed as much as the stadium simply to see Messi have returned later to help the house membership.

“This crew, this stadium was drawing 45-50,000 earlier than the [Messi] schedule was made,” Garber stated. “I’m certain there will probably be different alternatives.”

In the meantime, most followers appeared to undertake Frank Chavez’s philosophy for find out how to admire the night: “Having enjoyable,” he stated, “largely wishing that Messi would have made an look on the sector, even for a couple of minutes.”

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